Wes Craven began his filmmaking career tackling gritty, primal horror, exploring the depraved side of man and how crippling it could be to come face to face with unflinching evil. At its core, horror has always been an avenue to address the disturbing aspects of the human experience and the world we live in, the things most don’t want to talk about. Craven understood this, and created rich characters and relevant stories that explore those uncomfortably ugly realities. He also displayed a unique ability to reinvent the slasher genre several times over, while still retaining his focus on making horror relatable.
With his debut film, The Last House of the Left, Craven shocked, enraged, and enthralled viewers. It remains one of the strongest rape revenge films, still eliciting a powerful response to this day. The film creates a suffocating scenario of violation and cruelty, putting the audience in the shoes of the victims and allowing us to feel how entrapping and unforgivable such a violation is. There’s a very raw and authentic feel to the film, offering an uncensored view of these merciless criminals. It’s clear they will continue to prey on anyone in their path, and apart from one morally-conflicted member of their group, they will greatly enjoy doing it. The Last House of the Left showcases the bleakest of humanity, but still manages to give us a win via righteous and bloody retaliation. The film highlights the powerful bond of family even in the face of such cruelty, and what loss can push you to do.
The Hills Have Eyes offered a fitting follow up to The Last House on the Left. Craven again explored a vision of terror centered around one family who must face down relentless, primal evil that is hellbent on their suffering. This evil comes in the form of a family of ruthless, cannibalistic mutants called the Jupiter clan. Again, there is only one member of this family that shows any empathy, with the rest being cold-blooded killers. The Jupiter clan is utterly savage, but they are not monsters of their own making. They are victims themselves; their deformities are the side-effects of nuclear radiation and abandonment by their families and society as a whole. Taking place shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, The Hills Have Eyes addresses the brutality of war and the dark secrets – and people – that get buried and forgotten in the process. Meanwhile, the Carters, the “normal” family targeted by the Jupiter clan, offer a harrowing critique on the All-American family. The father is a retired cop who is openly racist and misogynistic, the mother’s identity is tied into praying all of her problems away, and most of their adult children are completely unaware of the world outside of their bubble. You still have empathy for them and want (most of them) to survive, but they aren’t really meant to be heroic characters as much as commentary on 1970s American culture. The Hills Have Eyes builds on Craven’s unique insight as a horror auteur, exposing the darkness in both those who hide in plain sight and those who are forced to become savages, hidden away by society.
A Nightmare on Elm Street began a new era of horror for Craven and a significant shift in how he tackled it. Most importantly, it invigorated the supernatural slasher film, forever changing the sub-genre. A Nightmare on Elm Street marked Craven’s turn to surreal horror that would become a staple in his films as well as an influence on countless other filmmakers. And it’s impossible to overstate the impact of Freddy Krueger on the slasher genre, provoking a shift towards franchises built around supernatural killers. Craven ripped away the security blanket of something being “just a dream,” turning the trope on its head by introducing a ghostly murderer who stalks his victims in their nightmares.
The film explored the importance of opening your mind, knowing the impossible but very real darkness that preys on you, and arming yourself against it without letting your fear consume you. Essentially you must beat Freddy at his own game and take away the power you gave to him by being afraid. In this, Craven planted the seeds for the smart slasher film with an aware, determined final girl in Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). A Nightmare on Elm Street added immense depth to what a slasher film could be and the territory the killer could manipulate. You could be seemingly safe in your bed and still be touched by an inconceivable evil that didn’t even need to enter your home. The attack on the mind is perhaps even more haunting and brutal than the traditional slasher that simply stalked and killed. Through this, Craven redefined the possibilities of what a slasher could be.
Throughout the 80s Craven continued to explore supernatural evil entering the real world in films such as The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker. While these films were supernaturally fueled, Craven coupled this with dissecting primal evil and brutality in man, true to the roots of his earlier films. While The Serpent and the Rainbow is a zombie occult film first with some strong body horror elements, its most terrifying element is the all-powerful dictator who mercilessly invades and torments the victims of his choosing, both through the body and the mind. The film is a horrifying exploration of how dangerous such unchecked power can be, providing a nightmarish journey into another possibility of mentally invasive supernatural horror.
Shocker takes a vile, irredeemable human evil reminiscent of the killers of Craven’s breakout film, The Last House of the Left, and explored the damage it could inflict if given a supernatural power like Freddy. The film is at times over the top and bizarre, but it is a worthy film to highlight among Craven’s most supernaturally focused chapter as a horror filmmaker. The death penalty only amplifying the killer’s power and ability to inflict pain elicits the question if execution really destroys evil or simply transfers it.